Step 1: Take time off of work.
Step 2: Be with your family.
What could be more relaxing than that?
In total, I have enjoyed six months of paternity leave over the course of three years. I guess I am one of the lucky few, at the vanguard of the new work-life balance trends. And I am truly grateful. That time with my family was amazing and I don’t regret a single second of it.
That said, it wasn’t nearly as easy as I thought, and definitely wasn’t relaxing. Most of the time it felt like I just swapped one job for another, and it wasn’t always an upgrade. I also made a lot of mistakes. Essentially, I discovered that while the concept of paternity leave might be straightforward, getting it right wasn’t.
With that in mind, I have been thinking about what I wish I’d known before my paternity leave began. This is what I came up with:
Paternity leave will only negatively impact your career if you let it. In fact, if done right, it will actually boost it. Ideally, you will demonstrate your leadership skills through your leave and come out the other side quite well off.
- Set It Up Right — Don’t let the all too common fear of negative perception limit your paternity leave. Spin that narrative on its head. Demonstrate how important your work and career are, by being proactive while setting up leave. Anticipate your manager’s concerns and answer them before he or she even has a chance to think about them. Then put the time in to develop a coverage plan that works for everyone.
- Think Big Picture — Preparing to leave the office for months will give you a rare opportunity to do a full job audit. Make a list of everything you do and categorized it as essential, meaningful, or available for automation/elimination. It will be the first time in your long career that you will really understand how you spend your time. Arming yourself with that information is critical to becoming more effective and efficient. What could be better for career growth?
- Develop Others — While arranging your coverage plan, determine what parts of your job can effectively be absorbed by more junior teammates. Rather than hiding those parts, or making them appear more complicated, call them out directly. Use it as an opportunity to develop your less experienced co-workers (never a bad leadership opportunity) and upon returning, take on more impactful work.
- Show Appreciation — Paternity leave is great for the person taking it. Being with family and delivering on your commitment to fatherhood is unquestionably awesome. For the co-workers left behind, however, it’s just more work. The only way to effectively avoid what may seem like inevitable hostility is some good ol’ fashioned appreciation and gratitude. Saying “thank you” is a good start. But taking the time to explain what it means to you and your family is critical. When your teammates are able to see specifically what it enables you to do, they will feel great about helping to make it all happen.
- Establish Communication Expectations — During leave, your primary responsibility is to your family. To avoid constant interruptions, set clear communication expectations at the office. First, request calls rather than emails. This will set a mild “effort” barrier, ensuring that the question is worth your time and not something easily solved without you. Second, set availability windows. By limiting work calls to specific days and times you are far more efficient. There won’t be any unexpected distractions when you are with your daughter or newborn son.
- Limit “Projects” — As someone very dedicated to working, taking time off can feel a bit … odd. You will find that your productivity itch needs to be scratched, but be cautious. Jumping into the DIY deep end can quickly become a distraction. Ultimately, this could prevent you from fulfilling the all-important Step 2 – be with your family. Don’t be like your co-worker who confessed to spending a 12-week paternity leave building the ultimate deck/patio set-up (now acknowledged as a missed opportunity).
- Don’t Ask, Just Do — Nothing will drive your wife crazier than asking to help out. You might assume you are doing the right thing by being considerate and offering. As it turns out, that is severely misguided. “JUST DO STUFF!” she will exclaim. Remember the demands on a mom can be overwhelming, especially right at the beginning or during recovery.
- Be a Jack of All Trades — Aside from the actual act of breastfeeding or pumping, there isn’t anything you can’t or shouldn’t do. Use it as a time to build up new skills like becoming a better chef, shopper and toddler whisperer.
- Get Out — Newborns make things infinitely more difficult. The standard cycle of screaming, crying, changing, feeding and spit-up isn’t fun. It is even less fun when you aren’t home with your standard set of useful tools. But, that is no excuse to confine yourself to the house. It might mean loading up the car with more stuff than you had in your first apartment, but it’s worth it. Getting out of the house with the whole family will bring a level of normalcy to your paternity leave. Plus, nobody reminisces on memories of Netflix bingeing.
- Have a Schedule — The freedom of cutting your tether to the office, will be too much at first. There just won’t be a compelling reason not to randomly watch HBO until 2 a.m. Your schedule will never be perfect. Rarely will a day pass, where everything falls into place. But, having a schedule does three things:
- It helps you to stay focused on your primary task – being with your family.
- It helps your wife because she will know when the small gaps of freedom are available (mostly to sleep).
- Finally, it will help your older children to enjoy the consistency she has come to expect. After all, having a new baby in the house was never in his or her plans.
Paternity leave is flat-out awesome. Sadly though, it may be the longest uninterrupted stretch you will ever have with your family. So put away your phone, be present, and enjoy it! It goes fast.
Author’s Note: If you have taken leave and have any advice for other dads, I would love to hear about it – either here, by email, or over at my site. Dads are finally getting some family flexibility in the workplace and we need to keep up the momentum!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JT Smith is a father of two, and the creator of Paternity Leave Pioneer, a website encouraging dads to prioritize their rights from the start. His website shares advice on negotiating, taking and optimizing paternity leave.